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The Arrowfield Stud supremo relates his long association with Shadai and extols the qualities that make Japanese horses and their bloodlines such a force in world racing.
John Messara is seated at a table in the corner of the Arrowfield Stud pavilion at the Inglis Classic Sale. The Australian stallion master and former Racing New South Wales chairman – one of several industry roles he has undertaken down the years – is in full flow, recalling the time, 20 years ago, that he offloaded a batch of foals to Katsumi Yoshida and let go a future Group 1 star.
“Fuji Kiseki was a horse that I thought would work here in Australia as a stallion, he was a magnificent horse,” he tells Asian Racing Report. “But he didn’t work well here and we had a bunch of foals by him.
“I was having dinner with Katsumi Yoshida in my home, on one of his annual visits, and I said, ‘Look, the horse hasn’t really worked but I’ve got this bunch of lovely foals by him, would you be interested in buying them as a package?’ That’s how the whole thing happened.”
A ‘friendly agreement’ was reached and Yoshida took the ‘six or eight or ten foals, I can’t remember the exact number,’ and among them was Kinshasa No Kiseki, who went on to win the G1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen two years on the bounce.
“It turned out to be a great investment for him,” Messara adds.
And the good investments have flowed the other way, too. Messara and Arrowfield have benefited, and continue to be rewarded, from a long relationship with the Yoshida family’s Shadai breeding empire that is presently embodied in the Group 1-winning shuttle stallions Maurice and Admire Mars.
Maurice was a superstar on the track and is rising to that same status as a stallion, in Japan and in Australia, while the younger Admire Mars has plenty of promise.
And it is no coincidence that both stallions, during their racing careers, tasted Group 1 success in Hong Kong, in Maurice’s case, three times.
“Maurice was a monster on the track, he was an imposing physical and he was a complete outcross of anything we had,” Messara says. “And I thought, commercially, he’d also be popular, because some people may have missed his Japanese victories but nobody missed his Hong Kong victories. That was key because we do follow Hong Kong racing in Australia. Admire Mars was the same sort of thing, and both horses were milers, we can deal with milers.”
Messara has been bringing mares and stallions to speed-hungry Australia from stamina-admiring Japan for a quarter of a century. In the last decade, he says, the interest among his fellow Australian horsemen and the success of his own endeavours have only increased.
Covid halted the shuttling of Japanese stallion in 2020 but they have returned the past two seasons. Messara says Maurice was ‘very popular’ and served ‘about 165 mares’ at Arrowfield but the number could have been ‘about 300 mares’ without prudent restraint.
That is hardly surprising given that the son of Screen Hero has already produced the Group 1 winners Geraldina and Pixie Knight at home, while from his first crop in Australia, Mazu has won the G1 Doomben 10,000 and Hitotsu the G1 Australian Guineas, G1 Victoria Derby and G1 Australian Derby.
“The Japanese horses competing externally have done a lot of good,” he says. “They’ve won almost wherever they’ve gone, including Australia, so there’s something of a fashion; they’re sought after now in Australia, people look at a Japanese pedigree and it’s respected.”
But Messara’s considerations go beyond the commercial and on-track triumphs of Maurice and his progeny. He is conscious of the proliferation of Danzig blood in the Australian horses, and, more specifically, Danehill.
“Over 50 percent of horses in training in Australia have Danehill in the first three removes, that’s a lot,” he says. “I think breeders are conscious of that, I certainly am because I brought the horse out here in the first place and I’m more sensitive to it, but I think everyone is now, because it’s almost difficult to breed without Danehill on both sides.
“You look at a horse that’s by a son of Danehill, like a Snitzel, well I’m having to think which of my mares can I actually send to him? A lot of people are sending Danehill on the bottom side and it started off poorly but there are improvements now – we saw that with Lofty Strike winning the Oakleigh Plate trial the other day, he’s by Snitzel out of an Exceed And Excel mare – but I try and avoid it.”
Messara believes the Japanese horses offer a healthy complement to the Danzig blood and add to the Australian gene pool the qualities that have made Japanese racehorses such global stars in the past ten to 15 years.
“Take Maurice, he had a pedigree that was from outer space, we had none of that blood here,” he says. “But also the Maurices seem to be horses with great cardiovascular systems, terrific lungs, his better ones, and they find more at the end of a race: you think they’re exhausted and they sort of start to drop back, they take another breath and they go again. Hitotsu was like that and so was Mazu; at the Everest it looked like they were going to run Mazu down easily and somehow, somehow, he kept going, and the good ones of Maurice, they do.
“The Japanese horses overall are seen as being tough, very tough competitors, and they run fast times. More recently it hasn’t been difficult to promote Japanese sires in Australia but it’s taken 20-odd years of education and slog to get to this point. Breeders here have come to understand that there are far less Group races in Japan than we have: there are about half the number on a per capita basis of black type races, so we know how tough it is to win a Group race in Japan.”
Messara notes that the Japanese racing model has a two-year-old programme that is alien to the Australian way. Juvenile precocity is not of particularly high value in a system that has its two-year-old Group 1 races, three of them, stacked up at the tail end of the year, and staged over a mile or 2000 metres.
“We’re out of sync with the rest of the world in terms of concentration on speed,” he says. “The essence here in Australia is speed and precocity and that’s it, so the winner of the Golden Slipper is a sought-after commodity, the Guineas winner is slightly less, despite the versatility that brings to the table.”
He believes the Australian status quo will not last.
“That’s all going to change with time, I think, and it’s slow-changing. Australians want quick returns, they’re not patient, they’re looking for quicker returns than owners elsewhere.
“But at the end of the day only a small percentage of horses run as two-year-olds: you’ve only got to look at the stats. And only one horse will win the slipper from 12,000 horses that are born. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s the way the market is here.”
Messara also recalls a visit to Paris, to watch the Arc, and, in particular, an unimpressive-looking bay named Deep Impact.
“Someone said we should have a look at this horse to have a go at and I looked at him and said, ‘Not for me thanks’ and he turned out to be a champion stallion,” he says.
“The Japanese are more driven on performance, which is worth thinking about when here we are more concerned with, ‘Oh, it’s not a perfect type,’ you know, and its leg turns out. And they might say, ‘Mate, he won with that leg and he won five Group 1s.’
“Of course, the Japanese farms, they also rely on selling on yearlings; we rely entirely, our cashflow comes from selling yearlings, a good two thirds of it, so we have to produce animals that at least look sound, good limbs and everything has got to be in the right place. But they’re a little bit more forgiving than we are.
“The (Yoshidas) took Sunday Silence that nobody else wanted and look at the legacy they built. Basically, not totally, but basically, they are performance driven.”
So far, the performances of Maurice’s initial offspring have lifted the profile of Japanese bloodlines to a new plane in Australia and Messara is optimistic there will be better yet to come.
“Last year’s book was absolutely exceptional, so I’m expecting a significant uptick in his progeny performance out of the 2022 coverings. We put some proper mares to him, I mean proper, proper,” he says.
It’s probably safe to say Messara won’t be in need of offloading any unwanted Maurice foals back to Japan any time soon.
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